Saturday, June 23, 2007


When Garfield turned 29 recently, it was celebration time for the numerous fans of the cat with an attitude. With Tintin a doddering 77, and Archie reaching out for his walking stick at 66,
Varuni Khosla cheers hard for Garfield, the baby of the toon family, and other classic toons

THE twentyninth birthday of Garfield the Cat on June 19 was celebrated around the world by its fans, but there have been in the recent past, a number of significant ó though quieter ó birthdays in the toon kingdom.

Popeye turned 78 on January 17, Tintin became an aging reporter at 77 in March, Fred Flintstone noticed the first signs of grey hair as he blew the candles on his 41st birthday in February and Dennis the Menace neared retirement at 56 on March 12.

Each toon birthday was significant and an occasion for publishers and TV channels to make some more moolah. Every year, birthdays of these cartoon characters become occasions for a new marketing thrust, resulting in a veritable fortune for all connected to the
comic character.

But in this age of interactive TVs, robots and instant gratification, is it possible to sustain the appeal? Would children in 2029 be interested whether Popeye turns 100 or 11 years later Archie too becomes a centurion? Such cults can definitely not last in modern times ó or can they?

"One can never be on sure ground while predicting the taste of children," says psychologist Vandana Mhatre. "Who would have expected Dennis the Menace and Donald Duck to appear on school lunchboxes? Or who could have expected an under achiever like Beetle Bailey to become a success?"

But the truth is that for one success, there are a dozen failures. Old-timers would remember Sad Sack, a cartoon character of the 1960s and í70s that almost became a cult but then it suddenly disappeared. Or, for that matter remember He Man and She-Ra? They just vanished.

Secret of success

What is it that separates a great cartoon from an ordinary one? Dr Mhatre has a simple explanation, "Itís like any book or movie. Whatís most important is a good storyline with a proper beginning, middle and end. If thatís there, everything else will take care of itself and the appeal will be instant."

So, what are the other secrets of a successful cartoon that will transcend generations?

Many say it is the family environment. The relationship between couples and their children and friends is timeless. Take for, instance, the Flintstones or Dennis. Their aspirations, problems and joys are the same as of any normal family today. Thatís why they are ageless.

But even here, it is absolutely essential to update a character without affecting its timelessness. In fact, the late Hank Ketcham, creator of Dennis the Menace, used to say that while Dennis didnít change over the last 50 years, the world around him changed. Thatís why he had to change him.

In the í60s Ketcham replaced the radio with a TV, in the í70s he brought in the skateboard instead of the hoopla. In the í80s he introduced Dennis to computers and in the í90s came the palm top and digital diaries.

But only the gizmos changed. Everything else remained constant. His mother and father were and still are the same, so are his neighbours, the Wilsons and his friends, Joey and Margaret.

However, psychologists say that the disturbing trend is that kids are shifting from innocence to violence in cartoons. Says Dr Mhatre, "The Tom-and-Jerry-type entertainment is today giving way to real violence that can be correlated with aggression rather than fun."

It is the teenaged boys who seem to like violence in cartoons but the silver lining here is that the novelty soon wears off. So, in the end only classic toons have a lasting appeal. Specially toons that have wide-eyed innocence around them.

Universal appeal

Toon animals never seem to age and stay in a kind of a suspended time warp where nothing ever dates ó an endearing feature as far as sales are concerned. Garfield the cat who was born in an Italian restaurant in 1978 has grown into a worldwide celebrity. His antics with his clueless owner, Jon Arbuckle, his drooling doggy pal, Odie, and his teddy bear, pooky, bring laughter to millions.

Or take Tom and Jerry. Their appeal has transcended generations. Parents feel secure with such creatures and introduce them to their kids. Usually both the generations end up laughing at their antics.

The most common denominator of cartoon success, however, is a sense of fun. "So many of the gags are those that all ages understand," says Dr Mhatre. Which in a way explains the timeless appeal of toons like Archies, Dennis the Menace, Hagar the Horrible, Beetle Bailey, Fred Flintstone, Tintin and Tom and Jerry. ó NF